Suicide & Supervision: Issues for Probation Practice
Borrill, J., Cook, L.C. and Beck, A.
This is a copy of the accepted author manuscript of the following article: Borrill, J., Cook,
L.C. and Beck, A. 2016. Suicide & Supervision: Issues for Probation Practice. Probation
Journal. Published online before print November 17, 2016, doi:
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Suicide and Supervision: issues for probation practice.
Suicides by offenders in the community have been relatively under-researched in comparison
with prison suicides. This study examined in depth the events and experiences of 28 service
users under probation supervision, based on continuous records from the start of their
sentence to their death by suicide. The study presents novel findings through mapping
suicidal behaviour onto the probation supervision process, and demonstrates the complex
pathways leading to suicide in this population. Key issues identified include missed
appointments, the impact of legal proceedings, changes in supervision, and the importance of
Deaths; suicide; supervision; probation; service users; risk; legal proceedings; training
Suicidal behaviour by offenders under probation supervision in the community has been
relatively under-researched and addressed in comparison with prison suicides, (Mackenzie,
Borrill, Dewart, 2001). This is despite evidence from Sattar (2001) found that in England and
Wales, that community offender suicide rates were then seven to eight times higher than the
general population rates, and also slightly higher than for prisoners, while. Pratt et al (2006)
also found that offenders who had been recently released from prison into the community had
higher rates of suicide than the general population. More recently, King (2011) noted that 20%
of suicides by people in contact with the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales within
the last 12 months, were being supervised by probation. A review of deaths by offenders under
community supervision during 2009-10 reported 104 deaths by suicide (Gelsthorpe, Padfield,
Philps (2012), representing 14% of probation deaths that year. It is notable that figures from
the Prison & Probation Ombudsman (2015) show that self-inflicted deaths by offenders in
probation AApproved PPremises (APs) are rare, reducing from 5 in 2011 to zero in 2014.
Regarding suicidal thoughts, Furthermore, Pluck & Brooker (2014) found that in one probation
area of England more than 30% of probation service users reported having attempted suicide
at some time in their life. Based on the small percentage of prisoners who appear to disclose
their suicidal thoughts to professionals (Slade, Edelman, Worrall, Bray, 2014), the figures for
probation service users reporting suicidal thoughts are also likely to be an underestimate. The
few studies of probation service users who experienced suicidal thoughts or attempts have
identified some potential risk factors, including previous self-harm ( Gunter et al 2011; Wessly
et al 1996) and , childhood trauma (Gunter et al 2011). Despite, the low level of suicides in
approved premises, and mental health problems have been highlighted among probation
service users residing in APs approved premises ( Hatfield et al 2005; Pluck & Brooker 2014).
At the time of the current study, probation services were provided by 35 probation trusts across
England and Wales. The trusts were responsible for overseeing offenders released from prison
on licence and those on community sentences. Supervision on a community order, could be
combined with other requirements for example, unpaid work, curfew, and certain group-work
programmes. Alternatively some requirements could stand alone without additional
supervision. Requirements could be constructive, for example, drug or alcohol treatment or
restrictive, for example, prohibited activity and curfew. The role of the Offender Manager
involved coordinating the sentence; assessing and managing risk (re-offending, serious harm
to others and risk to self), monitoring progress; ensuring compliance and enforcing sentences.
One aspect of probation supervision involves identifying and recording risk of suicide. The
Offender Assessment (OASys) system is a structured clinical assessment tool completed by the
Offender Manager. It assesses the service users risk of reoffending and harm to themselves or
others over the period of supervision. The Delius case management system records all relevant
case management information including supervision contacts. Individuals considered to be at
risk of suicide should be identified using the Delius risk to self-register which enables suicide
risk to be highlighted to all relevant staff and agencies accessing the Delius record. An
individual under probation supervision is required to maintain regular contact, including
attending appointments with their probation Offender Manager as well as complying with all
requirements of their order. Whilst under probation supervision, service users are helped to
identify the causes of their offending behaviour and ways of avoiding reoffending. Offender
Managers must enforce supervision requirements according to a statutory enforcement
framework. This includes issuing warning letters for failure to comply and instigating breach
proceedings through the courts, within a clearly specified timeframe, in line with national
requirements at the time.
The meaning and value of offender supervision has been examined in detail across a number
of countries (Durnescu 2008; Shapland et al 2012), not only identifying the different aspects
of supervision, but also the different perspectives of practitioners and probation service users.
Folkard et al. (1966) found that good rapport between probation officers and probation service
users and maintaining the same officer were related to more positive outcomes. Conversely
high levels of control exercised over probation service users were related to failure. Evaluation
of training developed in the UK to enhance probation staff skills in engaging with service users
(the Skills for Effective Engagement, Development and Supervision (SEEDS) programme)
reported particular perceived benefits in engagement with service users with alcohol problems
and those with domestic violence offences (Sorsby et al 2013). These are factors that are often
associated with increased suicidal risk, demonstrating the important role that probation
supervision can play in managing vulnerable offenders Pratt et al (2010) reported that
prisoners in England & Wales the UK who died by suicide following release into the
community, had lower levels of contact with probation staff prior to their deaths. This suggests
that effective supervision practice may be able to make a significant contribution to suicide
prevention in probation service users.
The challenges faced by probation staff in actively engaging service users with the supervision
process are important in understanding and reducing suicidal behaviour. In-depth interviews
with a small sample of probation staff highlighted the challenges of supervising vulnerable
probation service users who had survived a near-lethal suicide (Mackenzie, Cartwright, Beck,
Borrill, 2015) and recommended mandatory suicide prevention training for all staff. Cook &
Borrill (2015) analysed 38,910 client records in England & Walesthe UK, concluding that
probation officers recognised the importance of previous suicidal behaviours, psychiatric
treatment, depression, and current relationship problems as risk factors for suicide, but were
less likely to record suicidal risk associated with alcohol misuse or loss of social support.
It is also important to understand the differences between offenders under community
supervision and those in custody due to the different settings and levels of access to support.
Prisons have a legal duty to protect prisoners from harm and to some extent to reduce access
to specific methods of suicide, for example monitoring access to substances that could cause
overdose or removing ligature points from safer cells. Due to contextual differences, the level
and frequency of probation supervision and monitoring is inevitably lower in the community
than in prisons or APs, and access to metho